Netherlands - Dutch parliament in crisis over immigration policy

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The Dutch parliament was holding crisis talks on 13 December after MPs passed a motion condemning its caretaker Immigration Minister for refusing to halt deportations of rejected asylum seekers until a new ruling coalition was formed.

Rita Verdonk, known as "Iron Rita" because of her crackdown on immigration in recent years, made no immediate comment but was expected to resign following last night's motion.

Prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende, whose caretaker Cabinet will meet immediately to discuss the crisis, warned the move could lead to a "constitutional stalemate." Observers said it was unprecedented for a caretaker minister to be forced to resign.

The condemnation of Verdonk came after she refused to implement a parliamentary motion passed the previous night by opposition MPs calling to temporarily suspend deportation of immigrants.

Opposition parties, who won a narrow majority in parliament's lower house at last month's elections want a new ruling coalition to allow about 26,000 asylum seekers whose applications were rejected before 2001 to stay in the country. While negotiations continue to form the next Cabinet, they have passed two parliamentary motions ordering the government to stop deportations.

But Verdonk had warned MPs last night that doing so could prompt up to 200,000 other rejected asylum seekers to again apply for citizenship.

While insisting she wanted to be as humane as possible, she told parliament: "I am also responsible for upholding the government's immigration law. You must expect that of me as minister."

Balkenende's conservative administration has in recent years made it more difficult for new immigrants to qualify for citizenship in the Netherlands, locked up new asylum seekers in detention centers and made potential immigrants pass tests allegedly designed to ensure that they can properly assimilate into Netherlands culture.

Left-leaning opposition parties supported most of the policies but have long called for a pardon for the 26,000 asylum seekers whose applications were rejected under previous immigration laws but who have remained in the country illegally.

Verdonk and Balkenende insisted that the pardon should be discussed during the coalition negotiations but said it would break long-standing conventions for a caretaker government to make such a radical policy shift.

Balkenende's Christian Democrats lost three seats in the elections but are still the biggest party in parliament, meaning he will likely remain prime minister.

Mark Rutte, leader of Verdonk's right-leaning Liberal Party, said it was unclear what would happen next, but said that if Verdonk resigned, all Liberal ministers would resign with her. The caretaker Cabinet is made up of ministers from the Christian Democrats and the Liberals.

"We are all in the dark," Rutte said.


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